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"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere."

Isaac Asimov

NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Handbook

The OxCam Student Handbook contains information regarding the OxCam program mission and requirements and extensive advice about the mentor selection process.  These are key sections of the handbook for easy reference. 

The Research Proposal

Why is it required?
Contrary to popular belief, the research proposal is not just another hurdle put in the path of graduate students. It actually serves many purposes, all of which help to ensure the timely completion of your degree and to aid in your professional development as a scientist. Just a few of the functions of the dissertation proposal include:

  • Focusing your attention on the full course of the research project, not just the next experiment
  • Ensuring you complete a comprehensive review of the literature to make sure the research question has not already been answered and that you are familiar with all relevant work already done in the field
  • Establishing agreement with mentors on the scope of the dissertation
  • Beginning development of technical writing skills
  • Beginning development of grant writing skills

Without question, the most ambiguous element of the Ph.D. is defining when the dissertation research has reached the required "critical mass" i.e. one can provide evidence of sufficient quality and quantity of research to meet the standards of the degree. One of the critical aspects of the dissertation proposal is to propose and achieve agreement on the scope of the research to be accomplished. Not uncommonly, the ultimate dissertation may move away from what is proposed due to insurmountable problems, unexpected results, new findings published in the literature, etc. However, it is essential that all principal parties involved in a student's research achieve initial agreement on the scope of the dissertation.

The research proposal also pushes one to really think about what is known in the field, how one will contribute new information, and what logical steps must be taken to accomplish one's research goals. This kind of planning helps one avoid paths that lead to dead ends. In other words, students are strongly advised to incorporate alternative strategies towards which specific outcomes will guide them as the research progresses. This is a skill that must be developed if one hopes to become a successful scientist. After awhile, this way of thinking will become second nature as you design your research, but initially many new researchers may not be aware of their need to grow in this way.

Finally, by developing the research proposal you will hone your technical writing and grant writing skills. The proposal format is consistent with that of most postdoctoral fellowship proposals and individual research grants. Thus, the student should recognize that development of the research proposal is not a sterile exercise but rather one which will help you develop skills you may apply throughout the entire span of your research career.

When and how is it submitted?
The initial research proposal must be submitted to your class dean by September of your first year in the program. Your class dean will provide feedback an comments on your proposal. During the Orientation Week at NIH, program personnel will provide guidance on how to go about constructing the research proposal. You will then work with your NIH and U.K. mentors during August and September to create an initial research plan. The research proposal will be you own work, but you are expected to work closely with your mentors to come to general agreement on what you are going to propose. You should ask your mentors to review drafts of the proposal for general comments, but do not expect them to provide detailed editing such as occurs with manuscripts. The final proposal must be approved by both mentors (signatures on faxed or e-mail copies are acceptable) to ensure that they are in agreement with you and each other in terms of what you have proposed to be the focus of your research. Keep in mind that research does not always (ever?) proceed as planned, so you should view the proposal as an initial plan that may require revisions as your work progresses. You should not view yourself as locked in to every detail of what you initially propose if your results require that you modify the plan.

Since you will have only two months to prepare your proposal, it will not reflect the magnitude of your research or include the detail of a proposal written by someone who had done preliminary studies or who has developed a research project over the first year or two of graduate work. The proposal length should be not fewer than five pages and not more than ten, excluding tables, figures and references. The idea is to keep it clear and concise as a voluminous document would serve no good purpose in the early stage of your research.

What is the format of the research proposal?
Different graduate programs may have slightly different requirements but the basic format is fairly standardized in that it is consistent with that of NIH extramural research proposals. This format, referred to as the PHS 398, is by far the most commonly used in all of biomedical research, so it should be the one you learn and utilize in your practice. The dissertation research proposal will almost always be shorter and more preliminary than a typical competitive research application, but the format and structure are identical. The electronic forms and detailed guidelines can be found via the web link provided below.

Focus your attention on the Research Plan beginning on page 15.

The goal of this short introduction is not to provide a thorough course on proposal writing. Whole books and lengthy workshops cover that topic, as will the annual GPP workshop on dissertation proposal writing. Rather, the following section synopsizes key sections of the proposal and their purposes. For simplicity, essential points are displayed in bullet fashion. The numbers in parentheses refer to the approximate number of pages devoted to each section in a 25 page NIH proposal. The bold numbers refer to the approximate number of pages for your 5-10 page version.

Title (56 Characters including spaces - absolute maximum)

  • Actually quite important - searched and indexed
  • Creates an initial impression

Abstract (0.5 pages)

  • Can be thought of as a mini-proposal - easiest to build with the same components as the proposal
  • Written for a more general audience
  • First impressions are important - creates or deflates interest
  • Written last but NOT at the last minute
  • In real life, one of the few pieces that everyone reads, including the public
  • MUST explicitly follow required length guidelines

Hypothesis and Specific Aims (1 page)

  • State the explicit hypotheses you plan to test and how you plan to test them
  • A bullet point approach is very effective to articulate exactly what you plan to do - it may include a small elaboration
  • This section creates a critical real first impression
  • Often includes a preamble which serves as a mini-introduction - context
  • Second section that everyone will read - often the "make or break" section for proposals that go through a grant review process
  • Establishes what a reader perceives as your thought patterns
  • Success of your work will be measured against whether you accomplish the aims
  • In reality, aims move and evolve once the research is under way
  • Also plays the role of "tell them what you are going to tell them"
  • NIH grants usually require the identification of 3-5 total Aims - 2-4 typical for a dissertation
  • Includes but is distinct from hypotheses being tested

Background and Significance (2-3 pages)

  • Sets up the "story" you want the reader to read - lead them toward your research vision
  • Establishes you as an authority/ i.e. one who is well-read on the topic
  • Shows that you are cognizant of the most important work already published on the topic
  • Distills from the universe of knowledge on the topic your specific aims (analogous to a funnel)
  • Establishes for the reader the importance of the work - "ho hum" vs. "I can't wait to find out the results"
  • Helps the reader understand the logical next steps i.e. your Specific Aims
  • Focuses more on what others have done but also allows you to weave in or build on your contributions or unique perspectives

Preliminary Studies (variable depending on when it is written - 1-3 pages, <=1 page)

  • Demonstrates that you are capable of deploying the proposed research methods
  • Shows the quality and quantity of data already acquired
  • Continues to build the case for the feasibility and logic of your proposal
  • Incorporates as needed relevant small tables and figures (these count toward the page limit)
  • Larger data sections can be added as appendices

Research Design and Methods (the largest section - generally 50% or more of the total 2-4 pages)

  • Explains the methodologies to be used to accomplish the aims
  • Two separate areas must be covered; these may be interwoven or presented as distinct sections
  • conceptual and experimental design
  • details of the methods
  • Should be tied absolutely and unmistakably to Specific Aims
  • Design should include branch points, different routes depending on what is seen, and must avoid fatal dead ends where Aims depend on success of previous Aims
  • Should acknowledge potential barriers and pitfalls and how you plan to get around them
  • If you are testing alternative hypotheses, make it very clear how the experiments will differentiate between them


  • Choose carefully - more is not necessarily better
  • Important to have a balance between a few of historical importance but most current (i.e. "right up to the minute" - literally if possible ) show you are on top of the latest developments in the field

Annual Progress Reports

Annual progress reports are required as an aid for monitoring your progress toward degree completion and to keep your mentors, advisors, and program directors informed of any unexpected changes in direction and/or scope of the proposed research.


NOTE: The length for your progress report should be between two and five pages.  If your research has taken a significantly different direction than originally proposed, then the rationale for this change should be a major focus of the Progress Report.